Understanding Israel-Palestine requires awareness of history

The MV Times declined to publish this Letter to the Editor on the basis that they do not cover international politics. So we publish it here instead.

I write in response to Jonathan Chatinover’s letter to the editor (May 16, 2024) in which he criticizes my letter of May 9, 2024, in support of the pro-Palestinian student movement. Several issues raised by Mr. Chatinover are beyond the scope of my letter, but they deserve to be addressed.

He complains that it is too facile to demand a ceasefire without also proposing an “endgame”. But a ceasefire is self-evidently a sine qua non for any long-term political solution; with tens of thousands having been killed, it is hardly unreasonable to demand an immediate ceasefire.

Mr. Chatinover claims that he has never heard me express disapproval of Hamas. I refer him to my op-ed in the MV Times dated November 30, 2023. On behalf of the island’s ceasefire movement, I stated that we condemn atrocities committed by anyone for any reason, including atrocities committed by Hamas.

Mr. Chatinover faults the Palestinians for their failure to have “made peace” with Israel, and speaks of the bankrupt “two state solution” as though it were an enlightened and progressive idea. Such use of this oft-repeated phrase betrays an ignorance of the historical facts. There is no equitable way to draw the borders of any such two states because the establishment of the state of Israel itself was based on violence, expulsion, dispossession, and massacres — in short, ethnic cleansing — against the indigenous Palestinian population. The partition plan adopted in 1947 under UN Resolution 181 violated the UN’s own charter, which enshrines the right to self-determination. That plan awarded more than half of the land, including the most fertile agricultural land, to a one-third minority population of relatively recent immigrants at the expense of the native inhabitants who had lived there for centuries. But the Zionist movement, still dissatisfied, was bent on de-Arabizing all of Palestine, and has used violence and terror in furtherance of that objective ever since. While the “conflict” has always been asymmetrical, episodes of Palestinian resistance and retaliation such as October 7 are to be expected.

The way forward? An emerging international consensus advocates a one-state solution: a single, secular, democratic state in Palestine with full social and political equality for all citizens. That would require the Palestinian right of return to be honored, in keeping with UN Resolution 194, and perhaps the Israeli ethnostate would have to be peacefully dismantled. Israel, sadly, has proven itself a rogue state with no regard for international norms such as borders and human rights.

It must be emphasized, however, that the ultimate resolution is not up to me, Mr. Chatinover, the US government, or anyone other than those who inhabit Palestine and Israel. That is another reason why Mr. Chatinover’s objection — that if one demands a ceasefire, one should propose a long-term solution — is without merit.

Mr. Chatinover cites the Israeli intelligence officers who reported to their superiors that a serious attack by Hamas was imminent and would “start a war.” This all-too-familiar canard locates the start of the current genocidal campaign at October 7, 2023, completely ignoring history going back 75 years and beyond. Further, he neglects to mention that the Netanyahu government knew Hamas was planning an attack, and chose to do nothing about it. The notion that Israel’s world-class intelligence services failed to “connect the dots” is absurd. The more plausible theory is that Netanyahu and company deliberately sacrificed their own citizens so as to provide a pretext for the current rampage. The gruesome irony is that Netanyahu shows less concern for the well being of Israeli hostages than does Hamas. Were this not so, he would have long since agreed to a ceasefire and a prisoner exchange.

The latest genocidal campaign against Gaza, horrendous as it is, represents a continuation of Israeli policy. The world is appropriately horrified and outraged. The only good news is that millions of people around the world — especially young people — have been motivated to take action. Many of us have made a point of learning more of the history of Israel-Palestine from principled and honest historians like Ilan Pappé, whose extensive and meticulous research relies on sources such as the Israeli military’s archives and David Ben-Gurion’s own diary. No wonder that apologists for Israeli aggression are screaming and pounding the table. The mask has been torn away; the myths and falsifications of conventional Israeli historiography have been exposed. We have reached a historical turning point from which there is no going back.

Is social inequality inherent to human society?

In an exchange of comments Facebook the other day, somebody said:

“Capitalism doesn’t create inequality, if it did there wouldn’t be inequality existent in other economic systems which there most certainly is. Inequality is inherent to the human condition. We are not all equally capable or equally industrious so we will not enjoy equal results. There is no system that creates equality because equality doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction people choose to believe. Believe it if you will, but don’t tear down an economic system that provides you with the free time to indulge such fantasies. I’ll grant you that capitalism isn’t fair, but show me an economic model that produces more. I’ll take freedom over equality any day. Right now, we have neither.”

Hereafter I’m using the second person to address the commenter.

Your remarks reflect such a strong attachment to capitalist orthodoxies that it is unlikely I can say anything to convince you, and there are so many misconceptions and fallacies that it’s hard to know where to begin. But I should try to make a couple points just for the record.

The fact that “other economic systems” — i.e., other than capitalism — have resulted in social inequality (or were likewise based on it, as with slavery and feudalism) in no way proves that capitalism does not also produce inequality. More to the point, the data and the historical record are overwhelming. Few serious scholars, economists, etc. dispute that the global capitalist order has produced massive social inequality – even capitalists acknowledge this. The world’s most powerful, elite government officials, corporate executives and academics gather for their conference in Davos to wring their hands over the global social, economic and environmental crisis resulting from capitalism’s excesses. (And rightly so, because such a system not only morally reprehensible, but also unsustainable.). No, the great dispute is over the way forward.

Further, there really is no other economic system of consequence in the modern global economy, other than capitalism, hence nothing to compare except in historical terms. If you look at history, you can say slave-based and feudal societies were unequal, so that must be the human condition. But this too is fallacious; there is no basis in evolutionary biology, history, anthropology, or what have you, to conclude that capitalist, market-based forms of social organization are somehow genetically embedded in homo sapiens.

You seem to be confusing the Enlightenment-inspired ideal of equality, the notion of human and social rights, with the obvious fact of variation from one individual to another. Of course, some people excel more than others at sports, math, language, music — and some are just plain smarter than most of the rest of us. Some are “industrious,” some are boneheads and slackers. Is that any excuse for a system in which countless millions toil at slave wages while a handful of billionaires control the world’s resources?

Capitalism subordinates social need to private accumulation. Inequality is not just an unfortunate side effect; it’s an essential feature. Marx told you a long time ago that under capitalism, wealth tends to concentrate at the top at the expense of the many, and history has proven it. Yes, there have been booms, as in the post-Word War II period, when living standards in the U.S. rose generally —thanks to the fearless struggles of socialist-minded workers who achieved a few significant social reforms. The data is incontrovertible, however, that for the past three decades or so, wages have stagnated even while productivity has increased. Since the financial collapse 2008, of course, matters have gotten much worse for broad swaths of the population, while the tiny layer at the top enjoys a share of the national income not seen since the robber baron days.

These levels of inequality are wholly incompatible with democracy. You correctly state that right now we have neither freedom nor equality. But that is no mere coincidence. With these levels of inequality, social explosion is inevitable. The ruling class cannot permit freedom in the face of such instability; in order to maintain control, there has to be mass surveillance of the population (brought to you by the NSA), ruthless police violence, and an exaggerated threat of terrorism to incite fear.

You say don’t tear down an economic system that provides me with the free time to indulge my fantasies. The implication here is that if capitalism has been OK for me, and I enjoy a reasonable level of material comfort, then it’s fine, and for those innumerable millions all over the world living in misery, sorry but life is unfair. This view is self-centered and short-sighted. You probably would agree that we should deplore racism even if we are not a victim of it. This is ordinary moral decency. Why is social inequality any different? Because you start from the mistaken assumption that inequality is somehow an immutable characteristic of human social organization, a pessimistic and defeatist worldview with no objective, scientific basis.

The good news is that there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Of course, there are both selfish and altruistic tendencies in human behavior. The solution is to create social structures that make it difficult for the selfish and greedy impulses of a few to screw everyone else. The hope — and there is reason for hope — is that when material want is a thing of the past, the need for extreme greed will diminish and eventually fall away.

A few hundred years ago, slavery and genocide were far more common than they are today. Those who advocated for the abolition of the slave trade were derided as dreamers, or worse. Nowadays, world opinion is virtually unanimous that genocide and slavery are wrong. This is progress, and there are other examples. Human society has progressed from slavocracy to feudalism to bourgeois democracy and capitalism. Fortunately, there is no reason to believe that capitalism is the endpoint of human social evolution. Quite the opposite is true: capitalism gives every indication of coming apart at the seams. What will follow? That is the big question.

My view is that world socialist revolution is the only way forward. The resources of the planet must be brought under the democratic control of the working class — meaning the overwhelming majority of humankind — and utilized rationally to meet the needs of people and the environment, rather than pillaged for the benefit of a tiny minority at the top. If you think this is an unrealistic goal, consider the alternative.

Top ten books — because you asked for it

People on Facebook have inviting their FB friends to list the top ten books that have had the greatest impact in our lives. Some people start naming big-name classics like Cervantes, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce. This strikes me as rather uninteresting, but maybe I am just envious because I am not well-read in the classics. Others are surprisingly candid — or perhaps, naive — in listing some real crap, self-help junk, various pop-schlock titles. I guess I am somewhere between an intellectual and a moron; ignorant, but a snob.
Problem is, I can’t bring myself to do this top ten list. I have been living 50+ years and reading for so long that I no longer remember very well the books that had a great impact at the time I read them, even where their impact was indeed great. The more recently read books tend to displace the old ones. So most of my top ten would be things from the past five years or so. All right, let’s give it a try anyway:
(1) Nietszche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Made a huge impression on me when I was 16 years old, so it has to stay on the list. I may not have understood it deeply, but nevertheless.
(2) Juliet Schor – The Overworked American. I read it in the early 1990s and keep remembering it time and again, so it makes the list.
(3) Duke and Gross – America’s Longest War. Greatly informed my thinking about the so-called War on Drugs, which I have been observing from the perspective of a judiciary employee for the past 20 years.
(4) Mathieu RicardHappiness. Picked up a copy while looking for something to do at an airport in December 2006. The timing was perfect. It actually changed my life for the better, permanently.
(5) Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I was already leaning in the direction of a vegetarian diet, but after reading this, I changed the way I eat.
(6) The Gateless Barrier, a/k/a The Gateless Gate. I was a student at a zendo for about two and a half years, studying with a teacher. Maybe some of it was bullshit. But we went through this koan collection, and I did a lot of sitting (still do hit the mat every day). I know the exercise had a profound effect.
(7) Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5. I never read it until recently — a couple years ago. I think it’s one of the finest novels I have ever read.
(8) Haruki Murakami – 1Q84. It isn’t just this novel, but that it introduced me to this writer and I went on to read several more of his books. You talk about a work of fiction grabbing you in the first few pages. This one grabbed me and did not let go for the next 900+ pages. I don’t know what it is about this guy. He sees the world in a weird way that is peculiar to him, and yet… universal? “Remember: there is always only one reality.” Really?
(9) Don deLillo – Underground. The one that begins at the famous Dodgers-Giants game in 1959. Man, that was one fucking good book.
(10) Terry Eagleton – Why Marx Was Right. My father and I have a decades-long history of talking about politics, about which we generally agree, although I have moved to the left of him. He lent me this book, and it had an enormous impact. Hitherto, I had often said I would consider myself a socialist but for the fact that I had not read any Marx or Engels, much less Lenin or Trotsky. I went on to establish contact with some real, practicing Marxists. In a conversation with one of them — a particularly feisty and erudite old bastard whom I’ll call Fred — he scoffed at Why Marx Was Right, saying Eagleton was a “Catholic Marxist,” i.e., something of a joke. But this book got me started reading some of the works of Trotsky, Lenin, Marx, Engels, and finding out for myself what the political theory is. Combining that with readings of countless contemporary articles that use Marxist methods of analysis, attending some lectures, and observing world events unfold through my own eyes, my political education has advanced greatly in the past two or three years. I am a Marxist-Trotskyist. In this capitalist culture, much of what my generation has been taught about history and socialism is utter nonsense. I have developed a reasonable level of confidence in my ability to sort out the truth from the bullshit.

Think before you “embrace change”

I can’t help but respond to this blog post that appeared on the website of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. Jennifer de la Cruz’ thoughtfulness and good intentions are commendable, but underneath all this positive attitude and cheer I detect the sickly spirit of pessimism and defeatism so deeply internalized that it is all but unconscious — hence the analogy between austerity economics and tornadoes. The latter may be partly anthropogenic, thanks to global warming; but the former is entirely so, and there is a good deal more we can do about it. Employment security, education, housing, health care, retirement security, and even the enjoyment of culture and leisure are — guess what! — human rights. The fact that those who point this out are regarded as Bolsheviks attests to how far our entire political culture has shifted to the reactionary right. We are expected to bow down and be grateful to The Man for our crust of bread. The trade unions, by and large, are collaborationists who clamor for a seat at the table where they can participate in the slashing of wages and the gutting of benefits.
So we are told to embrace change and be positive as this attack is going on. No. We need to work on our political consciousness, clear the clutter from our minds and see the big picture. You know the facts. Income inequality has gone through the roof even as we are told there is no money for frills like education and health care, even as Wall Street and the war machine are still lavishly funded courtesy of the taxpayer.
As we speak, the Federal Defenders in Manhattan — a first-rate squad of extremely hard-working, committed lawyers who represent indigent defendants in federal cases — are subjected to furloughs tantamount to a 20% pay cut with no reduction in work load. As we speak, millions of federal workers like your humble servant are in their third year with no cost of living adjustment, even as the cost of living itself has risen — a de facto pay cut. As we speak, public sector workers in the judiciary, and elsewhere, are being furloughed or laid off. There are, of course, innumerable other examples, many of them even worse.
Economic inequality of fantastic proportions, hideous social problems (including mass incarceration, of which court interpreting is but one of many spinoff industries), environmental destruction: the word for this grotesque condition is capitalism, a system where virtually by definition, the needs of people are subordinated to private gain for the few. What we need is a worldwide socialist revolution whose aim is to invert these priorities and place the resources of the planet under the democratic, rational control of the working class, by which I mean at least 90% of the world population. No one is saying this is going to be easy. But the alternative is far more dire: quite possibly, species extinction; at a minimum, further deterioration of your material conditions and a shitty future for you and your children.
Dear reader, if you are snorting “good luck with that revolution thing,” then let us return to where we started. Defeatism and pessimism will get us nowhere. Rather than bowing down and “embracing change” with pop-psychological cheerfulness, we should be planning ways to resist and fight back. One idea that comes to mind is what I call the counter-furlough. For every furlough day that is meted out to workers, every worker strikes for one day, furloughed or not, and not just in the industry of the afflicted workers, but as far across the economy as we can manage. This action should be organized not under the aegis of a union, but by ad hoc rank-and-file committees of workers themselves. Do not wait to be saved by reforms implemented within the Republican/Democrat political framework because that, truly, will never happen.
Yes there is enough to go around. Please think about this and use your imagination to envision a world in which things like employment insecurity, hunger and poverty are all but eliminated — change of the sort we can truly embrace. If you are curious to learn more, I invite you to check out the Socialist Equality Party. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

On Becoming a Marxist

I grew up as the child of liberal parents in the 1960s. One was an astronomer who was active in the women’s movement against the Vietnam war; the other, a musicologist then working as a journalist and book critic whose scholarly reviews were sympathetic to lefty and liberal ideas. Both were committed supporters of the civil rights movement. My father insists that our phone was tapped during those turbulent years. I think that’s uncertain, but by no means implausible.
After going through a more or less apolitical period in my teens and 20s, I gradually became a political animal, watching public affairs ever more closely. And the more I paid attention, the more I understood that notwithstanding the occasional battle won by progressive elements, the United States is fundamentally not a participatory democracy, but rather is ruled by the wealthy and corporations. Not coincidentally, wages for the many have stagnated over the past few decades even while total productivity has increased, and of course economic inequality has skyrocketed. These propositions are not controversial, but well established by objective data.
Meanwhile, in the realm of foreign policy, we’ve seen such monstrous criminal misadventures as the Iraq war, with complete impunity for its perpetrators. Now, under Obama — the darling of so many liberals — mass surveillance of the population, indefinite detention without charges, and assassination have become institutionalized in the name of the so-called War on Terror. On the domestic front we have rampant unemployment and underemployment; millions in debt servitude for the sin of attending college; mass incarceration on a scale unparalleled anywhere else in the world; no sign of serious response from the Obama administration in the face of catastrophic climate change; and the list goes on.

Financial deregulation, and the spectacular display of greed and corruption that ensued, resulted in the meltdown of 2008, coming around the same time that candidate Obama was absurdly being called a socialist by the far right. I began to think, would that it were so. Capitalism is a disaster for most of the world’s population. True, the middle class generally has done pretty well during boom times when there’s enough to go around, and with a labor movement driving some reforms. But with the hegemonic power of the USA in decline, those post-World War II days are gone. So long gone, in fact, that millions belonging to the generations born in the 80s and 90s have never experienced those Leave It To Beaver days of prosperity, as my friends at the Socialist Equality Party point out in lucid detail. Hereagain, this should not be too controversial a proposition. Even the cream of global elites get together for their conference in Davos to worry about inequality getting out of hand and causing severe unrest. In a sense, capitalism is the victim of its own “success.” The more rich and powerful the top layer gets, the more its rigs the system so it can grab more wealth and power — in a vicious circle that has long since gotten out of control. Hence the crisis of capitalism.

But I still didn’t quite get it. I was in what I now think of as my middle-class protest politics period. For years I gave what money I could to progressive causes; emailed and called my elected officials to urge them to this or that; went to street demonstrations. Weary from the Bush years, I dropped to my knees and voted for Obama in 2008 even though I well knew both parties were owned by big business. In 2009, the uproar broke out around Obama’s much-acclaimed, much-maligned healthcare “reform” legislation. I got involved in Single Payer activism, and even suffered the inconvenience of spending a night in jail for doing civil disobedience — sitting in at the offices of a large health insurance company.

Of course, all that effort came to naught. The healthcare fiasco provided an instructive example. There were four main guys in the House and Senate who advocated for Single Payer during the Obamacare debate: Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, John Conyers, and Anthony Weiner (before he was disgraced for emailing pictures of his dick). When the time came, each and every one of them sold out and voted for Obama’s massive bailout to the profit-driven private health insurance industry, a piece of legislation substantially written by its lobbyists. This is just one case, but it illustrates an essential point that I have since come to understand: reformism doesn’t work. Capitalism subjugates social need to private profit, and it requires inequality — that’s how it works. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, capitalism itself has to be abolished, not reformed.

I wondered: what’s the alternative? I knew about socialism approximately as much as the average reasonably educated US citizen who grew up in the Cold War: not much, really. I had never actually read anything by Marx or Engels. I stumbled across the World Socialist Web Site, started reading it regularly, and became even more curious. I had never seen anyone state the political truth with such unrelenting bluntness. Who were these guys? Just as my theoretical curiosity was thus aroused, my father happened to lend me Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton, in which he assures us that if you haven’t read anything by Karl Marx, no worries, this book makes a good introduction. (I have since talked with serious Marxists who scorn Eagleton as a “Catholic Marxist,” but the book was nevertheless a useful introduction.) Then I took the trouble to read some texts by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky to see for myself what they actually say, and was struck by their prescience and continuing relevance. I followed up with some more current writings, such as David North’s In Defense of Leon Trotsky, The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party, and the SEP Statement of Principles.

Once exposed to a bit of Marxist theory, I began to get it. The history of human social organization goes from slavery-based societies to feudalism to capitalism to… what? It is by no means a foregone conclusion that capitalism is the end point of the evolution of human society (Francis Fukuyama’s famous, now discredited, assertion to the contrary notwithstanding). If it turns out that capitalism is the final word, it will be because the human species extinguishes itself under capitalism, most likely by way of environmental catastrophe, before it gets its shit together.

So what sort of world socialist society do I envision? One in which the wealth of the planet is utilized rationally and democratically, i.e., with the priority on social need over private profit and accumulation — the inverse of capitalism. If that sounds somewhat vague, it is. I haven’t mastered all the implementation details. If it sounds ambitious, it is; history teaches that the struggle has been and will likely continue to be long and bitter. If it sounds like so much dreaming, it isn’t. Dreamers are those who think the human species has any chance of survival under capitalism.

Martin Luther King once said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Although his statement may have been partly rooted in religious faith, there is some objective historical evidence that the principle is correct. A few centuries ago, genocide and enslavement were commonplace. Now world opinion is in general agreement that genocide and enslavement are wrong, and people get upset when they happen. Some day people will likewise look back at history to an economic system where the many — i.e., the working class — suffered and were exploited so that a few could become fabulously wealthy, and they will find it appalling and unacceptable, just as we consider slavery appalling and unacceptable today. In the future, the revolutionary Marxists of today will be recognized as having been ahead of their time.

another letter to Bill Pascrell, D-NJ

Everyone who is not either ignorant or cynical recognizes that private health insurance must go, and be replaced by a publicly financed single-payer system such as those that exist in virtually every civilized democracy on the planet. Once again I picked up my quill and penned another missive to my Congressman and I urge you to do the same without delay.
Dear Congressman:
I write to urge you to co-sponsor and support HR 676, the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All bill re-introduced by John Conyers.
Everyone knows Obama’s healthcare “reform” is coming unravelled, as was to be expected. Based on the thoroughly dysfunctional private insurance system we now have, it was doomed to fail from the start. Many people — not only the right — rightly detest the individual mandate because it compels the purchase of a defective product. It is truly a dreadful idea, and yet the Obama legislation can never be even minimally effective without it.
Meanwhile we have the likes of Scott Walker and Chris Christie doing their best to destroy the public sector, as if firefighters and librarians were to blame for the budget crises many states are suffering. One of the recurring themes in these confrontations is the cost of healthcare. How can we take this contentious healthcare issue off the table and save our society billions of dollars, while achieving superior public health outcomes at the same time?
The solution could hardly be more obvious. We have been needing a single-payer, national health insurance plan for decades, but the need has never been more desperate than it is today. Single payer has been proven to work in other countries and it will work here. The time has come to discard Obama’s ill-conceived, private-insurance-based debacle and start over. Healthcare is a human right, not a commodity. The struggle will not be easy, but that is no excuse not to do the only morally and economically sound thing: single payer, Medicare for All. One publicly financed national health insurance plan for everybody.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.

U.S. politics as professional wrestling

One time many years ago I bought a T-shirt that depicted a donkey and an elephant doing battle inside a wrestling ring in typical pro wrestling style: extravagant, flamboyant, over the top. The caption read something like “US Government Wrestling Federation: It’s All Fake.”
Sagacious commentators like Gore Vidal and many others have been telling us for years that our political system is dominated by a duopoly which is really two wings of one Business Party, one of them slightly more moderate than the other, but both fundamentally subservient to the oligarchy. I think you would have to be either seriously deluded or disingenuous to disagree.
During the fake health care reform debate of 2009, Anthony Weiner remarked that Democrats show up at a knife fight carrying library books. And traditional, gullible liberals often lament that their leaders aren’t mean and ruthless enough to go up against the evil Republican opposition. I think Anthony’s remark is profoundly insightful, perhaps even more so than he intended. Assume it’s true: Obama carries an armload of library books as he goes up against his vicious knife-wielding foes. Why? Why on earth would you do such a thing… unless… he doesn’t really mean to win. Oh dear me, it’s all fake!
I am reminded of the pro wrestling analogy as I watch the Obama administration pretend to care about the interests of ordinary people.
Here he comes, approaching the ring: Barack “Mister Main Street” Obama, wearing his coveralls and hardhat, carrying his lunch pail. He is lucky enough to be employed, it seems. Before entering the ring he punches his timecard on a clock installed outside his corner by the promoters, and the crowd goes wild — their hero, a working man!
And now, here comes The Republican, in full evening wear. Cigar in hand, pocket watch on a gold chain, he steps into the ring, removes his top hat and hands it to his valet. Mostly jeers and boos come from the crowd but you can hear he has his supporters as well: those who like to imagine that their own interests coincide with those of The Republican. Now he pulls out a wad of cash and starts counting, driving his enemies in the crowd into a screaming rage. He jeers at the rabble, finally hands his cigar to his valet and gets ready to rumble.
The action begins, the Republican and Mister Main Street pound the shit out of each other for several minutes. Oh, the drama! Oh, the entertainment! How diverting! Finally the Republican beats Main Street senseless and wins the match once again. Tax cuts for the rich, billions for criminal wars of imperialist expansion, austerity for the rest of us.

open letter to Congressman Pascrell

I urge you to oppose Obama’s freeze on federal pay. According to press reports, this measure would save a mere $5 billion over 2 years. Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy are still on the table, and reportedly would cost $700 billion over 10 years. And the cost of our criminal misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan is of course obscene in terms of both blood and treasure. Clearly, Obama’s gesture is no more than symbolic in terms of deficit reduction. But it is a good deal more than symbolic for federal employees who were expecting a paltry but nevertheless welcome cost of living adjustment of 1.4%.
I speak from self-interest, as a federal employee. I will feel the impact, but am fortunate to be relatively well paid and will more than likely be able to suck it up. But the same cannot be said for countless workers whose wages are low. There are federal workers who push mops, clean toilets and do their best to get buy. I exhort you in the strongest terms to stand up for all of us federal employees and not let Obama throw us under the bus for the sake of this cheap and cowardly gesture of submission to the deficit hawks of the right.

Going to Jail for Health Care for All

On October 15, 2009, I participated in a nationwide campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience to demand Single Payer health care and an end to the profit-driven private health insurance system. Supported by some 50 legal protesters in the street, 14 protesters entered the lobby of One Penn Plaza in midtown Manhattan, a building that houses offices of the insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, and sat down on the floor. When we refused to leave, police arrested us and loaded us into paddy wagons.
Our group consisted six women and eight men. Of the men, two were in their mid-seventies; one of these was a retired Episcopalian priest, whose bearing and clerical color gave our group an air of respectability and gravitas; the other happened to be a Quaker.
Most people who do civil disobedience hope to get what is known as a Desk Appearance Ticket (DAT), where the police take you to the precinct, check your fingerprints for warrants, and if they find none, hand you a piece of paper like a traffic ticket and send you on your way. The whole process takes typically four to eight hours, and is perhaps only slightly more (or maybe less!) unpleasant than typical airline travel, where you are in a sense imprisoned, and your patience is tested. But we were not so fortunate. It was determined — I don’t know how or by whom — that we were to go through “the system” with the rest of humanity in all its wretchedness. Some of us speculated that this determination may have been political, i.e., someone powerful made a phone call and said that protesters should be discouraged and not given any breaks.
First we were taken to the 9th Precinct, in the East Village, where we were divided by gender and kept in two cells for over 10 hours. For the first five or six hours, morale was high. We had lively and stimulating conversation, got to know one another, sang songs, had some good laughs. After seven or eight hours had elapsed and we still had not been provided water, much less food, we began to complain. Ironically enough, the priest had headed a commission some years ago that promulgated a set of reforms for the New York law enforcement and penal system. Among these was a regulation that any prisoner detained for over five hours between midnight and 7:00 a.m. had to be provided food and water. When the priest pointed this out to one of the officers, she argued that the rule applied only to Corrections and not the NYPD. The priest insisted that it wasn’t so, and encouraged her to consult her supervisor. Eventually, she offered to take a few dollars from us, go to a vending machine in the building and bring some bottled water. I don’t think it took much effort. Shortly thereafter one of the support team was allowed to send in a bag with refreshments: more water, some fruit and energy bars.
In the meantime, the police went through an arduous process of fingerprinting us one by one with a scanner that kept failing to recognize our fingerprints. Whether it was software or hardware that was defective, or both, the machine balked if your fingers were too oily, or not oily enough, or if you were simply too old and your prints were too faint. The cops muddled through with commendable patience for the several hours that it took to fingerprint all 14 of us.
It was approaching 10:00 pm when we were transported downtown to a place known as the Tombs, in the basement of the courthouse at 100 Center Street, too late to appear in night court and be released. The place was packed, and we all stood handcuffed in a slow-moving line for over an hour to be photographed one by one, and finally, around midnight, admitted as a group to one of several large holding cells.
Some of us were still wearing white T-shirts with black lettering that said “Victim of Private Health Insurance” on one side, and “Medicare For All” on the other. We were repeatedly asked by both police and prisoners why we were protesting, and we seized every such opportunity. People were overwhelmingly receptive. (Only the intake photographer at the Tombs was hostile, but then again, from what I was able to observe, he seemed to have hostile attitude towards everyone.) Thus the system handed us an opportunity to promote our cause and continue the very sort of work for which we were arrested.
The Tombs was not particularly pleasant. I was grateful not to have known in advance what it would be like, because if I had, I might have hesitated to get arrested. We were in a windowless rectangle with a built-in stainless steel bench along three walls (the fourth being the bars). There were a lot of miscellaneous arrestees, people sleeping on the floor or on the benches, overwhelmingly black. A group of kids, whom I found vaguely menacing, had apparently been arrested together for drugs; they monopolized one of the two phones. Shortly after we arrived, the guard announced a feeding and let us all out into the hall to collect little boxes of corn flakes and milk. When we returned to the cell there was a confrontation, basically about territorial boundaries. Another prisoner struck one of our group in the face, breaking his glasses and giving him a black eye. Another of our group yelled for the guards, who came promptly and removed both victim and assailant to different cells. This was how our evening at the Tombs began. (Note to those considering doing CD who have an aversion to violence: this incident could surely have been avoided had we exercised a bit more caution.)
A guard came to the bars to ask witnesses about the incident. A couple of us went over and provided a narrative. Then there was some grumbling in the cell about snitches, and I had some fears of getting my white ass beaten. But the whole affair seemed to blow over, and the hours dragged on.
And on. After so many hours under flourescent lights with no windows and little sleep, the time of day reported by my watch became a meaningless abstraction; there was no discernible difference between 4:30 a.m. or p.m. There was a water fountain in the cell, but I distrusted the foul-tasting water and drank sparingly. As for food, it’s too painful to remember and I’d rather not talk about it. Seriously, though, the nourishment provided was evidently designed to keep us from starving and no more. For a good meal you should look elsewhere.
At some point, a handsome, well-dressed, articulate black man was brought into the cell. He and a like-minded friend began to lecture the assemblage about God, and His purpose for us all, and what we had to do to attain true manhood. “Gentlemen,” he said, “there are four attributes that you do not find in a real man. A real man is not a gangsta, a pimp, a thug, or a playa.” This seemed to be directed at the vaguely menacing kids. Eventually, there was a genuine conversation to which everyone who was not asleep appeared to pay attention, many of them participating. We discussed spiritual and philosophic issues and basic personal values. Where we could find common ground, we did so. When our well-dressed friend argued the inferiority of women, we called him on it. It was a remarkably fruitful exchange of ideas. But the preachers outlasted us, and the dialogue degenerated back into a one-sided lecture that became oppressive.
Our Episcopalian priest had been placed in a separate, more private cell — presumably because of his age and status. Towards morning, they put him back in with the rest of us. His appearance apparently humbled the two lay preachers, as they finally quieted down as soon as this real clergyman arrived.
The morning wore on and became afternoon, according to my watch. At last the guards started pulling small subsets of us out to go to court, where a judge released us on our own recognizance. Mine was one of the last three bodies — as we call humans in the judicial/corrections trade — to be summoned. Our lawyer, a volunteer who enjoys representing protesters, stood up for us in court without having had a chance to talk to us beforehand. The prosecutor offered Defendant Yours Truly a plea to Trespass Violation, the lightweight version of the misdemeanor Criminal Trespass, and one day of community service. Community service? Excuse me, I have been serving the community big-time for the last 32 hours. For our septuagenarian Quaker, who has more of a track record than most of us, the offer was seven days in jail. Apparently he is deemed a danger to society and in need of some deterrence. Fuck that. The UnitedHealth 14 will be holding out for much more favorable dispositions.
My brief encounter with the system was sufficient to underscore what I already knew: we live in a profoundly racist society. There can be no justification for the extreme overrepresentation of minorities and the poor in the jail population. If patterns of law enforcement have a disproprortionate impact on non-whites, which they undoubtedly do, that is inexcusable; and if dark-skinned people in fact commit crimes at a greater rate than light-skinned people do, then they must be disproportionately affected by inequality and social problems that make it so, and which must be addressed. Most people would rather make a living wage than spend the night in the Tombs for shoplifting cosmetics from Walgreens.
The experience also reinforced my feelings of gratitude. I knew I was lucky to enjoy a bourgeois life, but after being released from the can, sleeping in a comfortable bed next to my warm and yummy wife, with the cat Master Lin-chi curled up purring next to my legs in all his astounding furriness — this was delicious beyond description. I slept like a god.
When I awoke, the first thought in my head was this: Patients, not profits. Medicare for all. I realized my determination was now all the stronger.
* * *
Since you’ve been good enough to read all these words, you can now be rewarded with pictures and video. An excellent YouTube piece is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Vx_Cnw2Wxk, and there are still photos at http://www.antiauthoritarian.net/NLN/photo-gallery/2009_10_14_health/ — scroll down past the silly HCAN stuff about the meaningless public option to see some great shots of the UnitedHealth action.
And yes, there is something you can do: http://healthcare-now.org/ The struggle is far from over and we have no intention of giving up.

Open letter to Senator Robert Menéndez: Single Payer!

My right honourable friend David Mintz shares with us this missive that he composed for Senator Robert Menéndez, gentleman from New Jersey, in regard to health care reform legislation. Though it’s substantiallly redundant with your humble servant’s letter published here just a few days earlier, we think the message herein bears repeating.
Dear Senator Menéndez:
I write in response to your invitation to your constituents to their submit ideas regarding health care reform. Note that this is not a canned text or a copy-and-paste job, but my own words.
The public option may sound like a good idea, but it’s clear that the likely outcome of HR 3200 is more of the same. Any solution built on top of the existing private-insurance-based scheme is a loser, as a public option plan will only be able to compete with the private sector by emulating the latter’s worst characteristics, shifting costs onto consumers and delaying or denying benefits. Indeed, from what I read of HR 3200, it contains a provision that the public option offer three or four distinct tiers of coverage with names like “Basic,” “Standard,” and “Premium” — meaning if you have enough money, you can buy relatively good coverage (emphasisi on relatively), whereas if you can’t afford the higher premiums, you can gamble with your health; and if you lose, go down the toilet both financially and medically. This sounds all too familiar.
It’s abundantly clear that the only rational and humane solution is a single payer system, and I therefore urge you to forget HR 3200 and support HR 676 and Senate 703. As a society, we are already spending enough to cover everyone, but 30 cents on every health care dollar is sucked up by insurance companies’ overhead and profits, while millions continue to go uninsured or underinsured. This is as immoral as it is wasteful. For-profit healthcare is an oxymoron, because health care is a human right, not a commodity.
When politicians say single payer sounds good but it isn’t politically feasible, I don’t buy it, for if every politician voted for single payer, you would have the votes. At worst, “not politically feasible” is a cynical expression whose true meaning is “I am up to my ears in private insurance and pharmaceutical money, and dare not betray my corporate masters.”
The economic disruption to the health care industry can be managed. Consider, as a reasonable compromise, phasing in single payer by lowering the eligibility age for Medicare by ten years every two until everyone is in from cradle to grave. (And, as a real “public option,” provide that others who are below the eligibilty age can opt to buy in at an earlier age via payroll deduction.) Further, HR 676 provides that displaced health insurance workers receive top priority for re-training and employment in the public, national health insurance program.
Of course, the right-wing fear-mongering about socialized medicine is to be expected, and should be ignored. HR 676 ought to be a true conservative’s dream, because it provides for an efficient, publicly financed, privately delivered health care system and eliminates vast amounts of waste. Even if we accept the language of the right and call it socialized medicine, I am telling you as a voter and citizen of these United States that I want socialized medicine.
How many of your constituents are satisfied with their private coverage, with its premiums, co-pays, co-insurance, exclusions, denials, delays, voicemail mazes, unintelligible form letters ironcially entitled Explanation of Benefits, and bureacrats incentivizing care providers to withhold care from them? I, for one, am among the fortunate: a healthy 51-year-old male with no chronic problems and relatively good insurance under BlueCross BlueShield Federal Employee Program “Standard Option.” Even so, I spend way too many hours doing battle with BCBS and providers over billing and reimbursements, and I have had quite enough.
I sincerely hope you will lend your support to genuine health care reform: Senate 703 and HR 676. As a bare minimum alternative, please support the Kucinich Amendment to 3200, which would make it easier for the states to implement single payer. If there is anything I can do to be of assistance in this regard, please feel free to call on me.